Scott's Column
Star Wars, Universal Studios, Canon 24-105mm f/4 L lens, Zune HD & Blu-Ray Ripping

September 1, 2010
By Scott Lewis

This month is almost all about Star Wars. Having taken my sons to the Star Wars convention, there was planning before the trip and a few things after the trip. There was not much time for anything else.

Current Topics:

Star Wars Celebration V & Universal Studios

During August I took my two sons to Florida for the Star Wars Celebration V convention. While there we also spend three days at Universal Studios... which included for us 2 days at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The week was a blast. I am working on putting together a video from all the pictures I took of the Star Wars convention. It will take some time, which I don't have right now.

I am wrapping up a major project at work as this goes to press (if it goes out on time). I will be spending a lot of time in September working late hours. I can feel it... the force is strong on this. So it might be a while before I can process the 917 photo I took at Celebration V alone. I also took a little over 700 photos at Universal Studios, and will go through those after I finish my Star Wars video.

I'll keep you posted.


Rented Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS Lens

I rented a lens for my new Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera. I already have the kit lens, which is acceptable in a pinch, as well as to prime lenses (non-zoom) in a 50mm f/1.4 and a 28mm f/1.8. For those that don't remember, the Canon EOS digital camera have a smaller sensor than a full frame digital camera, so the size of the lens my go through a crop factor to get the equivalent size on the small sensor. In this case the 50mm is seem by the camera body as an 80mm, which is a mild telephoto lens. The 28mm is seen as a 45mm lens when applying the 1.6 crop factor.

I would like a really good quality zoom lens, but there was just not enough money in the budget after having bought the camera and the two prime lenses. So I rented a Canon 24-105mm f/4 L IS lens. The L series lenses are Canon's professional series of lenses. This particular one sells for approximately $1,200. I was able to rent it for two weeks for $95 from It arrived well packed in a box, and included the return shipping label. The clock starts ticking on the 2 weeks when the package is delivered, and the clock stops ticking when you turn it into an authorized UPS facility.

I was extremely please with the lens, and can highly recommend The lens stayed on the camera for almost the entire time at Universal Studios. I set the ISO on my camera to auto (with a range of 100 - 800). Even at 800 ISO the f/4 of this lens was not fast enough to get good images in super low light, even with image stabilization. Granted, I was pushing this lens and my hand holding ability beyond their limits when trying to get shots of the Indiana Jones Stunt Show stage at night.

I did not try to the zoom lens for the indoor shots at the convention. I used my 28mm lens almost exclusively. This lens let me stand reasonably close to people in costume and get some great shots. The kit lens would not have come close. In fact, there were a couple of shots that had more than one person in them and one would be slightly out of focus due to the shallow depth of field f/1.8 provides.

Overall I am so glad that I bought this camera and had this selection of lenses for the trip. Next time I will break out the tripod and get some amazing night time shots as well.

On a side note... although I did not buy the Canon EOS T2i for video, I did try recording a clip of some singers at the Harry Potter part of the park. The video was a shot clip 1 minutes long. It was 350 MB is size and it looked amazing. I was super impressed at the quality. If it were not for my shaking the camera and the occasional head moving in the way it looked like a professional clip. Very impressive, and I now look forward to recording more video content.


Zune HD for Celebration V and Blu-Ray Ripping

I took my Zune HD on the vacation to Celebration V. Since it is HD, and we were staying in a nice hotel I assumed I would be able to send HD video from the Zune to the TV in the hotel room. So the hunt was on to get HD content on my Zune for the trip.

I purchased an LG Blu-Ray Reader/DVD Re-Writer for my PC. I downloaded DVDFab's software mainly because they give you a full 30 days to try it before you buy it. That is plenty of time for me to rip a dozen movies for the trip. I also purchased the Zune HD A/V kit that includes a docking station with power to recharge the Zune as well as cables for HDMI and Component Video output for connecting to a TV. Oh, and it includes a remote control. Perfect for watching movies late at night in the hotel room.

I have heard very good things about AnyDVD HD for ripping Blu-Ray and HD-DVD discs. I don't think they offer a free trial. I will take a close look at both programs in the near future to decide which to buy. But this article is about what I did to prepare for the trip to Orlando.

I played around with ripping Star Trek (the 2009 version, currently my absolute favorite Blu-Ray disc) to see if 1) I could rip an uncompressed copy of a Blu-Ray movie to play on my Blu-Ray player across the network. I know... I am too lazy to walk over to the player to put in a disc. Hey, if it works across the network I am golden. We are talking Media Library here. 2) Rip Blu-Ray discs to 720p HD to load on my Zune HD. I am hoping for file sizes around 2 - 2.5 GB for 720p on the Zune. This will allow me to take about 2 dozen movies. Since we are also going to Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter I thought I would load all 6 Harry Potter movies on the Zune. That leaves room for the 3 "important" Star Wars movies (Episodes IV, V, & VI) ripped from DVD (since George hasn't bothered to release them on Blu-Ray yet) and a few other movies.

NOTE: BTW, George Lucas announced at Celebration V that the Blu-Ray versions of the six Star Wars movies would be release in the Fall of 2011. However, he also said that they would NOT include the original theatrical versions as this would cost too much. Are you kidding me. How many billions of dollars has this guy made off these movies that he can't scan the originals to 1080p and throw them on the discs. But that is for another discussion.

My initial rip of Star Trek to MKV format resulted in a 1080p file at 30 GB. This played perfectly on my PC (With VLC Player). However, when I tried to play this over the network to my Blu-Ray player it would play fine for about a minute then it would stutter. I assume that my network cannot handle streaming a 30 GB file fast enough. I have my server and two PCs all connected with Gigabit Ethernet, however the LG BD-570 Blu-Ray player is only connected to the network at 100 m/bit. Oops! I may try loading this 30 GB file onto a USB drive and plug that into the Blu-Ray player, but that is for another article.

I will need to find a 1080p file format that is smaller. I have seen files available online that range from 2 to 9 GB for Blu-Ray rips. At 9 GB that is very close to the file size of a DVD movie. So now we are talking about resolution (1920 x 1080 for Blu-Ray, 720 x 400 for DVD) versus compression. If you are shrinking a 30 GB Blu-Ray movie down to the size of a DVD movie is it really better?

My initial attempt at creating an MP4 file from Star Trek with DVDFab was two MP4 files that the Zune Desktop application would not recognize, and a third file that the Zune application needed to convert as it synced with the Zune HD player. I was really hoping to avoid a file conversion during syncing. In the end every MP4 version from DVDFab had audio syncing issues.

There was one option for creating an MKV file that resulted in a significant file reduction. At about 7 GB I got a file that was 1080p. This file played on my Blu-Ray player over the network. And it looked very good. However, this file was branded with the DVDFab logo. This was because I had not purchased the software yet.

Since I could not get a playable file out of DVDFab for my Zune it was time to pull out Format Factory. I am running version 1.85. They are up to 2.4x or so, but when I ran 2.40 it created files that the Zune application could not recognize as valid. When I used version 1.85 I always got an MP4 file that synced without an addition conversion during the sync process.

I played around with some options, and the only way to get a good copy was to select H.264 compression and 2 channel audio. That's right, when dropping to 720p for the Zune if I tried to keep the 5.1 sound it would be slightly out of sync. Just enough to have you looking at everyone's lips when watching a movie to see how far off it was.

I was also able to run Format Factory to convert the 30 GB MKV file to another MKV file of about 9 GB. I asked for the "default" size since there was no place in FF to select 1920x1080. This too played well across the network.

Armed with my 30 day free trial of DVDFab and Format Factory I was determined to find the easiest way to get 3 files... 1) the uncompressed MKV file for long term storage... for when a Blu-Ray player comes with Gigabit Ethernet and I can easily stream an uncompressed movie from my server to the TV. 2) As high a quality file I can get that my Blu-Ray play can stream over my existing network, and 3) A 720p MP4 file that will play and sync to my Zune without an addition conversion.

I ripped each movie twice with DVDFab to both MKV formats. I then ran Format Factory on the larger MKV file to generate the 720p movie that my Zune HD recognized as HD.

The trip was a complete success with one minor issue. I ripped the Star Wars DVDs with the option to include only "forced" sub-titles. This allows you to read the sub-titles with Jabba talks and such. Unfortunately, at least one movie had extra words across the top. It was weird. I didn't care enough about this when I got back, so I won't be looking for a reason or solution.

I only ended up with the 5th and 6th Harry Potter movies, due to lack of Blu-Rays and difficulty in rounding up DVDs.

We watched the Zune exclusively when we were in the hotel room. The hotel's video system is closed and I could not find a way to use the remote to change the input source to one of the other HDMI inputs. But there was no trouble in unplugging their "box" in the back of the TV and plugging in my Zune HD into that HDMI port. All was golden. We did encounter an issue. When we first turned on the TV there was no volume control. We had to plug in the hotel's video box, navigate their menu to a standard TV station, briefly adjust the volume, and then switch HDMI cables. After this the volume on their remote continued to work.

Free Blu-Ray Ripping Solution - When I returned from Florida I was curious if I could find an acceptable and easy method of ripping Blu-Ray movies. DVDFab has a free component called DVDFab Decryptor. This will rip a Blu-Ray of all of its files. Once done you find the movie as a .m2ts file. Run this file through HandBrake and it will create an MKV file about 9 GB for Star Trek that so far looked excellent on my PC. I have not done any further testing, but I will and I will be sure to publish it here.



That's it for this month. I will hopefully be creating a movie from my Star Wars photos. Plus I built a new PC before going on vacation. So I expect to have some of this to report next month.

See you then.